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Brain Anatomy and Language in Young Children

October 15, 2013
Language acquisition and the child brain

Researchers Sean Deoni, left, and Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh studied brain scans and tested language skills of 108 children aged 1 to 6 years. Develoment of language skills, it turns out, may be heavily influenced by the child’s environment. Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Researchers from Brown University, including doctoral student in Engineering Douglas Dean, and King’s College London have gained surprising new insights into how brain anatomy influences language acquisition in young children. Their study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that the explosion of language acquisition that typically occurs in children between 2 and 4 years old is not reflected in substantial changes in brain asymmetry.Structures that support language ability tend to be localized on the left side of the brain. For that reason, the researchers expected to see more myelin — the fatty material that insulates nerve fibers and helps electrical signals zip around the brain — developing on the left side in children entering the critical period of language acquisition. But that is not what the research showed.

“What we actually saw was that the asymmetry of myelin was there right from the beginning, even in the youngest children in the study, around the age of 1,” said the study’s lead author, Jonathan O’Muircheartaigh, the Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London. “Rather than increasing, those asymmetries remained pretty constant over time.”

That finding, the researchers say, underscores the importance of environment during this critical period for language. Read more of Kevin Stacey's article about Brain Anatomy and Language in Young Children.